For many years, new National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins has been a good news guy for Christians concerned about the "new atheists'" strident insistence that evidence from science is evidence for their views. His folksy manner is a hit, as he leads sing-alongs sporting a double helix-branded guitar. He recently co-founded the BioLogos Foundation, (with Karl Giberson and Darryl Falk), whose mission statement, "We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation," is intended to comfort Christians.
Collins is best known to science as the genome mapper who sat with President Clinton and others on the White House lawn, celebrating success in 2000. But his strong identity as an evangelical Christian may have made him better known for his recent book, The Language of God, part personal testimony and part explanation of how to reconcile faith and science.
Of course, his advocacy of faith as a public scientist has received mixed reviews, to the point of attracting histrionics about looming "theocracy."
But now that Collins faces confirmation hearings before the Senate, the focus will shift from his persona to his view on issues relevant to his new job. He seems much more relaxed about abortion and human embryonic stem cell research than the average evangelical leader, so it will be interesting to see if he attracts any flak on that account.
And there's the curious passage in The Language of God where he writes,
I would argue that the immediate product of a skin cell and an enucleated egg cell fall short of the moral status of the union of sperm and egg. The former is not part of God's plan to create a human individual. The latter is very much God's plan, carried out through the millennia by our own species and many others. (page 256)
Most traditional Christians would not relate to a view of God's providence where humans can simply exempt other humans from it by their own wilful actions. Although some have argued that Collins is simply confused, his confusion always veers in one direction – against the exceptional status of human life.
Now, given that his key goal has been to reconcile Christianity and Darwinian evolution, this is precisely where they come into conflict, and even his supporters admit it. Either we are the 98% chimpanzee or we are made in the image of God. The 98% chimpanzee movement seeks quite seriously to blur the boundaries between humans and other primates, with predictable results for such issues as abortion and experimentation on human embryos.
Collins's public statements on these subjects have been less than forthcoming. In a discussion of these evasions, Justin Barnard notes,
Collins needs to come clean. Either he upholds the dignity of human life or he doesn't. If he does, and he accepts the nomination to head the NIH, then it seems that he is deeply compromised as a professing evangelical Christian. If he does not, then the evangelical community needs to know.
Evangelicals face a critical decision here: Do the American evangelical leadership want a place at the table, even if the placeholder may not be all that they would want? Or do they prefer to be represented only by someone who is onside on key issues such as the sanctity of human life? The future of the evangelical movement will – in a small way – be shaped by the answer to this and similar questions on the road ahead.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.